The different types of military drones

With contexts varying between different countries, it can be difficult to find your way around the world of drones. This panorama of different systems provides a compass.

A drone or Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) is a remotely-piloted aircraft, which is to say that it there is no pilot on board. Mission-specific payloads enable them to undertake a variety of missions, such as transporting equipment, capturing still and video imagery, mapping, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, target designation and the delivery of lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Unmanned air systems now play a significant role in conflicts and continue to attract a high degree of interest from military planners. But what are the origins of these systems and what are the main types in use today?

A bit of history

The original meaning of drone is a male honeybee that makes a deep, persistent or monotonous sound, and, even though UAVs now bear little resemblance to the first unmanned aircraft, that reference has become entrenched in the language. Industry professionals prefer to talk about Unmanned Air Vehicles or Remotely Piloted Air Systems.

The concept of a pilotless aircraft goes back the First World War. While the United States was developing the Hewitt-Sperry automatic airplane, in France, George Clémenceau, then chairman of senate armed forces committee also launched a project to develop a pilotless aircraft. Captain Max Boucher duly developed an automatic pilot that could fly a Voisin BN3 biplane over distances of 100 kilometres or more.

During WWII, the huge losses suffered by reconnaissance aircraft on all sides led directly to renewed interest in unmanned observation aircraft carrying neither pilot nor observer.

Observation drones were used for the first time during the Vietnam war and by Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Today, tactical and strategic UAVs are key battlefield assets. Because drones carry no crew, they can be deployed behind enemy lines without fear of loss of personnel.

Unmanned systems truly demonstrated their superior operational observation capabilities during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, their capabilities are especially appreciated in asymmetric conflicts.
The term Unmanned Air System (UAS) is also widely used because a UAV is typically part of a system comprising:

  • one or more observation UAVs carrying various sensors
  • one or more ground control stations that control the UAVs and receive sensor data
  • radio datalinks between the UAVs and the control stations.

Military UAVs are classified into categories and subcategories according to their weight, speed, range and capabilities. The Nato UAS classification includes three classes.

Class I (< 150 kg): micro, mini and small

Thales uses several types of Class I UAVs in its C4I (Computerised Command Control Communication & Information) solutions to provide ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition & Reconnaissance) capabilities.

The FULMAR fixed-wing micro-UAV (with a maximum take-off weight of 20 kg) was developed by Thales and Wake Engineering. It offers endurance of 12 hours, a range of 90 km, a top speed of 100 km/h, a maximum altitude of 4,000 m and a payload capacity of 8 kg. Fulmar UAVs can be readily integrated with Thales maritime and land border surveillance solutions.

Launched by a small catapult and recovered in a net, Fulmars can be deployed from a ship's deck or on land. Key benefits include a deployment time of just 30 minutes and the fact that they can land on water.

Fulmar on the Thales's pavilion during the Paris Air Show


Class II (150 to 600 kg): tactical 

Tactical UAV systems are designed to serve as organic battalion-level or special forces assets for medium-range surveillance. They fill the gap between the capabilities of short-range micro-UAVs and strategic UAVs (MALE and HALE), combining flexibility, ruggedness and endurance. They are used for situation awareness, protection, surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition and damage assessment.

Thales is the prime contractor and systems integrator for Watchkeeper, currently the world’s most sophisticated tactical ISTAR system and Europe’s largest UAS programme. The Watchkeeper platform is the only large European UAV certified to fly in civilian airspace, including urban areas.

Watchkeeper ©UK MOD Crown, Copyright 2014.

Class III (> 600 kg): Strategic

The endurance of MALE (Medium Altitude Long-Endurance) systems makes them ideal for the theatre-level surveillance and area reconnaissance. They are used to determine the position of enemy forces, the movement of non-combatant populations, the state of in-theatre infrastructure and to compile lists of targets.

The best known MALE systems include the Predator/Reaper, Heron and Anka families. The Global Hawk family is one of the few HALE (High Altitude Long-Endurance) systems currently available.

Unmanned combat air systems

An Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) uses drones designed specifically for combat and carrying both reconnaissance sensors and weapons.

The nEUROn, a European stealth UCAS technology demonstrator, featuring a range of Thales technologies, successfully completed its maiden flight on December 2012 from Dassault Aviation's flight test base near Istres in southern France with the support of the French defence procurement agency (DGA).

Today, Thales is developing onboard systems for the Franco-British FCAS Future Combat Air System, currently the sole experimental UCAS programme under way in Europe, with a view to leveraging the combined expertise of France and the United Kingdom in this area.

Civil applications

Already considered essential in the defence sector, unmanned air systems are expected to play an expanding role in civil applications. A pioneer in this emerging market, Thales launched the ‘Aetos’ project with the Aquitaine regional development authorities in Southwest France in 2010. The Aetos cluster aims to speed up the development of civil applications by drawing on a broad spectrum of drone technologies. Thales is also a major contributor to the French Council for civil UAS (Conseil pour les drones civils) sponsored by French civil aviation authority DGAC.

Access to airspace

Access to airspace is critical for both military and civil UAV systems. Before they can fly like ny other aircraft, three main challenges need to be overcome — regulations, safety and technology. Considering the market potential and the importance of resolving these issues, the European Commission has launched the European RPAS Steering Group while the European Defence Agency and other other EU institutions are conducting the Air4All, SIGAT and MIDCAS studies.

Watchkeeper is the only programme designed, built and tested to meet European civil and military UAV airworthiness criteria. It is also the only one to have been certified by the United Kingdom MoD's airworthiness authority.

Thales is at the forefront of innovation in the field of Unmanned Air Systems, addressing needs on the battlefield while helping to win access to civilian airspace. The company looks forward to further strengthening partnerships in this growing sector and consolidating its global leadership in high-performance manned and unmanned systems and a key partner in avionics, sensors and mission systems.

With total UAS revenues of more than €1.5 billion over the last ten years, Thales is the European market leader in unmanned air systems.

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Fri 19 Jun 2015, 7:20
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